“I remember in no particular order:
– a shiny inner wrist;
– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by a half dozen chasing torch beams;
– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.
The last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”JULIAN BARNES, The Sense of an Ending
This opening to Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novel seems to borrow from cinema, its memories frozen in time like pictures. These brief snapshots burst into the present day action of Ritesh Batra’s The Sense of an Ending film adaptation. But they are mere fragments of a heavy, nebulous past.
Thoughts and memory might work like visual images, but Batra’s biggest challenge in adapting Barnes’ novel is how to suggest memory’s fallibility – its blurry, faded, half truths – in a medium that presents events as they really are. Barnes’ novel is narrated by Tony, a retiree forced to re-xamine his own life story in the wake of an unexpected legacy from the mother of his difficult first love, Veronica. Over the course of 150 pages, Tony’s willingness to forget past indiscretions frequently collides with their consequences. Barnes novel is a meditation on time, memory and responsibility; a conversation between Tony and the reader. It trades in thought and ideas. So how does Ritesh Batra translate this to sound and images?
In Batra’s hands, The Sense of an Ending becomes an epistolary film. It makes perfect sense that Tony’s cerebral voiceover turns out to be a final letter to old flame Veronica (Charlotte Rampling). Indeed, the letters that fuel the novel’s plot have a constant, almost oppressive presence onscreen. The film even invents a connection between Tony (Jim Broadbent) and the postman (Nick Mohammed) – the epistolary idea working its way into our subconscious through Royal Mail imagery that populates the mise-en-scene.
Flashbacks piece together Tony’s memories of youth and its sexual frustrations. As his thoughts fire, figures from the past appear briefly in his present. Later, as Tony’s surroundings dissolve completely into those of his youth, past and present seem to merge. In this way, Batra depicts Tony stuck in time: his mind consumed with the reconstruction of memory.
Journalist Lili Loofbourow argues, in her analysis for The Week, that Batra encourages us to question Tony’s perception of the past, “by exploiting the differences between the young and old actors.”
“When Tony meets Veronica as an adult, it’s shocking to the viewer: Charlotte Rampling plays Veronica as a woman who has suffered. There is nothing of Freya Mavor’s Young Veronica, a girl whose coolness seems as flirtatious as it is laconic. But Tony sees her differently; he finds her remarkably unchanged. That shows the viewer how distorted Tony’s perceptions really are; where we see a total transformation, he sees the same girl he fell in love with”.LILI LOOFBOUROW, The Week
In the present – and with the superiority, distance and relief that comes with being an ex-wife – Margaret (Harriet Walter) sees through Tony’s self-delusions and calls him out. Margaret makes plain what is beyond Tony’s own observation, overcoming the limitations of the novel’s unreliable narrator.
“You wanted to hear her say how wonderful you are and how you haven’t changed, how she’s thought of you all these years and looked up at the stars and wondered…
I’m sorry, it’s all a bit pathetic. Do you know what really strikes me is your total inability to see what’s right under your nose. Such as your daughter who happens to be lying next door going out of her mind. ”MAGARET in The Sense of an Ending film adaptation
The screenplay from Nick Payne expands Tony’s relationship with his pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery), juxtaposing different life stages. A crude device perhaps, but pregnancy is a recurring theme in Barnes’ novel too. Both its suicidal young men – Robson and Adrian – are “afraid of the pram” after getting their girlfriends pregnant. There’s gentle irony in the film’s title – The Sense of an Ending – projected over a school assembly as Batra points to fate, responsibility and the all too brief nature of life itself. Tony’s desire to get out of the school’s holding pen into adulthood, to feel the passionate and tragic emotions written about in great literature, gradually gives way to a comfortable and enduring love for his own daughter and ex-wife.
“In those days we imagined ourselves as being in a holding pen waiting to be released into our lives…
When you are young, you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life and create a new reality. But as that second hand insists on speeding up and time delivers us all too quickly into middle age and then old age, that’s when you want something a little milder don’t you? You want your emotions to support your life as it has become. You want them to tell that you everything is going to be ok. And is there anything wrong with that?”TONY, The Sense of an Ending film adaptation
The novel is concerned with this concept of time: our idea of past and future. Barnes draws parallels with our study of history – the corroboration of events through witnesses and documents. Batra weaves in a watch motif.
” We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never thought I understood it very well. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”JULIAN BARNES, The Sense of an Ending
“But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”JULIAN BARNES, The Sense of an Ending
Batra’s film adaptation doesn’t come close to this kind of nuance about our construction of the past. Yet it forms a neat companion to the novel, allowing us to see Tony from outside, in all his complex imperfection, and to feel the weight of his culpability for the tragic events surrounding him.
What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.
Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.
If you’re short on time, start with these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.
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